Last Sunday’s IndyCar race at ISM Raceway (more commonly known as Phoenix) provided a lot of answers for the new-look 2018 season. It was not the epic that was promised by the new bodykit, but it was a fascinating race nonetheless.
The clear issue was the lack of a second lane, and that became evident as the race progressed. While it was possible to actually go racing on fresh tyres – as Alexander Rossi and winner Josef Newgarden showed, it was generally difficult to make up substantial ground.
This is worrying. A dusty track and a lot of marbles paired with a race of few caution periods did not help, but ultimately despite the drastic reduction in downforce the racing was not as frantic as expected.
It was only the late caution for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ed Jones prompting Newgarden to pit which resulted in the grandstand finish which was produced. Once again, the fantastic rookie Robert Wickens was denied a stunning race victory.
Wickens was sensational around St. Petersburg but to arrive at an oval for the first time, having never raced on an oval and quite simply showed the best IndyCar has up. Many praise Fernando Alonso for his first race ‘only turning left’, but this was significantly more impressive.
The Schmidt Peterson driver looked at home for all 250 of the laps during the event. He had tested at Phoenix before, but has not had the amount of preparation that Alonso had in the run up to last year’s Indianapolis 500. What’s more – Wickens is now probably my tip for the championship.
A rookie has not won an IndyCar championship as a rookie since Juan Pablo Montoya achieved such a feat back in CART in 1999. In the ‘pre-split’ era, Nigel Mansell also won the championship as a rookie (albeit as the reigning world champion). There’s a bit of a footnote with that, as Scott Dixon won his first championship in IndyCar in 2003 in his first year, but had previous CART experience and therefore did not qualify for Rookie of the Year honours.
Either way, should Wickens go all the way and become champion, he would be in with fine company. No driver has breached the Penske/Ganassi stranglehold on the Astor Cup since 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay won for the third ‘big’ team in Andretti Autosport.
There are plenty of drivers who should be able to challenge Wickens for the championship. Despite an anonymous run at St. Pete, Newgarden is the championship leader following his charge to victory last time out and is an obvious contender. Rossi has been on brilliant form in recent races, and is laying the foundations for a challenge with Andretti. The trio have all identified each other as title rivals.
A four-time champion may be able to make it five. No, not Dixon, but Sebastien Bourdais with the unfancied Coyne team. The St. Pete winner and Phoenix polesitter should not be ruled out at this stage, especially given his form this season and last season.
Speaking of Dixon, would it be wise to rule out the most successful driver on the grid? This has not been the strongest of starts to a season for the New Zealander by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, at Phoenix, his vastly less-experienced team-mate Jones was the driver who looked stronger. Is it too early to rule out either Ganassi driver? I think so.
And Penske’s two other champions? It’s early to rule them out as well. Both Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are hugely experienced and both know how to play the long game. Both should also be strong at Long Beach, which is where IndyCar is heading this week.
James Hinchcliffe (who also probably shouldn’t be counted out for championship success) was victorious here after a strategic battle with Dixon. He capitalised on problems for the Andretti quartet to steal his first victory since his horrible accident at Indy. He will be looking to go back-to-back at IndyCar’s most famous street race.
This is another race in which the pecking order is difficult to predict. But those who performed well at St. Pete – Power, Wickens, Matheus Leist, Jordan King, Rossi and Bourdais – should be expected to be strong here. Or perhaps, just like the rest of the season so far, it may well be a completely unexpected result once again.